Monday, October 12, 2015

Kissinger's Private Thoughts on Vietnam

Politico has an interesting feature by Niall Ferguson on Henry Kissinger's private musings about Vietnam, in particular an uncirculated report he wrote after a visit to in 1965. Ferguson is a fan of Kissinger's brilliance and his goal seems to be to show that Kissinger understood from 1962 that Vietnam was probably unwinnable for the U.S. Here Kissinger responds to optimistic briefings he received in 1965 from William Westmoreland's staff:
Kissinger heard similar things from other senior officers. “If I listened to everybody’s description of how they were succeeding,” he remarked to Lodge, “it was not easy for me to see how the Vietcong were still surviving.” It was the same story at Pleiku, where “briefers at the Second Corps headquarters claimed [that] 68% of the population was under government control.” Kissinger was disgusted. “Since I have last had contact with it,” he noted scornfully, “the Army has degenerated. They have produced a group of experts in giving briefings whose major interest is to overpower you with floods of meaningless statistics and to either kid themselves or deliberately kid you.” When he asked the Pleiku briefers “how much of the population which was technically under their control was also under their control at night,” they answered only 30 percent. Kissinger did not believe this either, but even if it were true, “it indicates the enormity of the problem. It also indicate[s] that we can go from technical victory to technical victory and not really advance in the major problem of establishing control over the population.”
Kissinger was constantly being told that this or that area had been “pacified,” but then told that it was too dangerous for him to visit there.

Ok, I get it, Kissinger was a smart man and like many other smart people he immediately grasped that Vietnam was a disaster in the making. Another smart man:
Why had Kissinger rushed back to Saigon anyway? For a dinner at Lodge’s with the wholly inconsequential Dutch, Korean and Italian ambassadors, an event enlivened only by the postprandial performance of one of Lodge’s aides, who “took the guitar and sang two songs which he had composed in Hue, which were extraordinarily witty but which were [also] extremely bitter, being an amalgam of optimistic reports submitted by Americans and coupled with newspaper headlines of what actually happened. These songs hit rather too close to home.”
What is so frustrating about the Vietnam War is that although many, many Americans saw the disaster coming -- possibly including Lyndon Johnson himself, although this is disputed -- they were unable to stop it. The fear that retreat would undermine American credibility, lead to the fall of other countries to the Communists, and end the career of any American deemed responsible was so pervasive that no one in power dared even to suggest just walking away. Eventually Nixon and Kissinger worked out a peace deal that allowed the U.S. to leave under minimally favorable terms, and then the North Vietnamese waited a decent interval before completing their conquest of the South. Some people are impressed that Nixon was able to do this at all. I tend to look at the whole sad tale and ask why, if so many people understood that a catastrophe was unfolding, they did not act more aggressively to stop it. Was it simply that American voters were not ready to stomach a defeat? Was it because so many people had lied about how well things were going that they were trapped by their own optimistic pronouncements? Were assessments of the situation in Vietnam at war with broader ideas about the Cold War, so that the messy details got swept away by considerations of grand strategy?

1 comment:

David said...

One factor that has impressed me in my reading on this issue is the role of the South Vietnamese government, which consistently and for obvious reasons made American withdrawal as difficult as possible, by refusing to agree to any terms the North Vietnamese were likely to offer. Over and over the issue in the Paris talks seems to have been, what the Americans could get the South to accept. Some have argued that the Christmas 1972 bombing took place precisely to show the South what Nixon would still do to back them up, even if the Americans "left." Even after that, my understanding is Nixon had to coerce Thieu to give in. Overall, I'm struck in Cold War history by how much the superpowers found themselves dancing to tunes played by their supposedly weaker clients.